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February 15, 2024

Drivers carry curiosity, trepidation into Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s time to duel.

The Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway are set to fire off Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), with the 42 entrants into the 2024 Daytona 500 split into two separate 60-lap races to set the field for the “Great American Race.”

Team Penske’s Joey Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 champion, will start from the pole position in the first duel on Thursday, while Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell will lead the group in the second duel to the green flag. Non-chartered entrants Anthony Alfredo and David Ragan are locked in regardless of Thursday’s results, but JJ Yeley, BJ McLeod, Kaz Grala and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson will each have to fight for the remaining two spots through their respective duels.

MORE: How qualifying works for Daytona 500 | Starting lineup for Thursday night duels

Ford and Toyota bring new body styles into the new NASCAR Cup Series season, Ford with its Dark Horse Mustang and Toyota’s Camry XSE. Both Logano and McDowell drive Fords. Each manufacturer’s car features its own unique character lines and aerodynamic designs, bonding the track-ready stock cars closer to their street-car counterparts.

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Those differences — particularly on the front and rear bumpers — will come into focus in Thursday night’s qualifiers, the first time these vehicles will be drafting together around the 2.5-mile superspeedway. With drafting often comes pushing, which could prove precarious given the unknown effect of what a bumper-to-bumper impact could look like.

“It will definitely be a learning experience for us,” said Logano, a two-time Cup champion. “Probably the biggest thing would be just making sure the bumpers line up good and how we push each other as far as the new body stuff. Obviously, it’s a learning experience no matter what. Even if it was the old (car), we’d have a learning experience on what your car has got for the 500 and what we want to work on for practice the next day. There will be a lot to learn, lots of things, but it’ll be good. It should be fine. We’ll figure it out.”

Each duel usually takes on a personality of its own — one typically calm, one decidedly more eventful, and not always in that order.

“There was that graph — you mess around and you find out? That graph, that’s what you have to figure out in the Duels,” Toyota’s Bubba Wallace said. “So for me, you push in the areas when necessary, like pushing on the straightaways and see. Because our new body, Ford’s got a new body, so you have to just be mindful of what works, what doesn’t, just to build your resume for Sunday. That’s when the pay window opens.”

Ford’s front bumper is noticeably less flat than it was a season ago, while Toyota’s is more squared off. Chase Briscoe, pilot of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, voiced his curiosity about how the Dark Horse Mustang’s new pieces will react in action.

“I know visually the Ford to me looks way more rounded than anything we’ve had in the past, especially the back bumper,” Briscoe said, “so I’ve been kind of anxious leading up to this week just knowing that. So I think the Duels will be a little timid at the beginning, but I do think there’s not near the forgiveness that we’ve had at least on the Ford side in the past, so that will be interesting when we really start pushing each other hard and see what happens. The Toyotas are different. The Chevys are gonna have to push us differently now too, so it’s all gonna change and it’ll just take some time for all of us to learn it.”

RELATED: New-look Ford, Toyota racers to contest Chevrolet’s reign in Cup Series automakers’ race

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Daytona 500 champion, drives the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. Chevrolet’s Camaros received no redesigns over the offseason, but their drivers will indeed need to be mindful of how their cars react to their on-track brethren.

“The good news is the other manufacturers have made theirs easier to push people, so if they’re behind you I guess you feel a little more comfortable about that,” Stenhouse said. “I’m sure they’re probably a little nervous. Everyone is so equal when it comes to getting four or five cars in line. I feel like speed-wise is already really close. To me, there’s a lot of differences made in the drivers who are driving the race cars… when to push, how to push and what your line is doing.

“I’ve got friends in different manufacturers that I’ve worked really well with over the years and a lot in the Chevy camp that I’ve worked well with. For me on the Chevy side, we’re focused on what we need to do to make our Camaros fast. I feel really good about where we’re at. I think we’ll have more speed than what we had last year, which is never a bad thing.”

The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, Ryan Blaney spotlighted the importance of balancing aggression against measure during the 60-lap shootout.

“Obviously you want to be smart in the Duels. You’re trying to win it and there are some points involved,” Blaney said, noting the points paid to the top-10 finishers in each duel. “But the last thing you want to do is wreck your 500 car making a dumb move. But at the same time, you can’t just ride around the back because this is your biggest chance to figure out what your car handles like in a pack.

“Friday, Saturday (in practice), you’re not gonna have a big pack racing like that and drafting just because it’s close to the 500, so this is the best chance to figure out what you need for Sunday. So I’ve always tried to put myself in funky spots in the Duels, spots that I would be in in the 500 – really close to someone’s back bumper exiting four with someone close to your outside. How does your car react to that? So, I think you have to be smart about everything, but also you need to figure out what you need to work on.”

For Johnson, Yeley, McLeod and Grala, the duels will be about much more than learning the intricacies of their race cars. It’ll be about simply qualifying for the Daytona 500.

MORE: Alfredo, Ragan lock into Daytona 500

Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, is driving a Toyota for the first time in his career. The Camrys struggled in Wednesday night’s single-car qualifying, putting Johnson in the precarious position of needing to race his way into the “Great American Race.”

“I’ve never been in this position, so I don’t know,” Johnson said of his Thursday approach. “I came down here mentally prepared to race my way in if that was required. I’m well-studied. I spent a lot of time working on the environment of the Duels and the way the race will unfold. Just get out there and race hard and see how it unfolds.

“Much more nervous now. I thought we were going to be in a little bit better position than this, but it is what it is. We will go to work.”

Alfredo, Johnson and Yeley will race in the first duel while Ragan, McLeod and Grala will compete in the second qualifier. Johnson will advance to the Daytona 500 by either besting Yeley’s No. 44 NY Racing Team Chevrolet; if Alfredo beats both of them; or if Ragan tops McLeod and Grala in the second duel.

McLeod will qualify for the Daytona 500 by beating Ragan and Grala in his duel, or if either Alfredo or Johnson are the best Open car in the first duel and Ragan is the best in the second duel.